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On the ‘great truth’ of Indian society and its arbiters

Ajay Navaria eschews political correctness to cast an acerbic eye on the quota debate, the politics of being labeled a Dalit writer and tensions within the community, writes Aditya Mani Jha

ADITYA MANI JHA  30th Mar 2013

Ajay Navaria standing in front of his bust created by the sculptor Hiralal Rajasthani | Photo: Hiralal Rajasthani

t the recent Delhi World Book Fair at Pragati Maidan, I found myself part of a cosy little book reading session featuring the Hindi writer Ajay Navaria in conversation with the actor Mahmood Farooqui. After the session was over, a clearly well-meaning old gent from the audience asked Navaria if he had any role models in life and in literature. Navaria thought about this for a bit before replying in a polite but firm voice. “Maine apne liye koi role model nahi rakhaa. Sirf kuch log yaad hain jinhone mujhe neecha dikhaaya, Dalit aur Savarna dono hi.” (I don’t have a role model, I just remember certain people who insulted me, Dalit and Savarna (caste Hindus) both) Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain would have smiled in approval of such a sentiment. Later that night, as I was reading Unclaimed Terrain (Laura Brueck’s superb translation of Navaria’s short stories) the first lines of The Scream seemed like an ill-timed riposte to the author’s own pronouncement earlier in the day. “Crime is very seductive. And revenge a trickster.”

Like the black and white parts of the Tajitu symbol, the angry, indignant portions of Navaria’s stories are always tempered, at least at first. Either the calming voice of rationality or Fate’s caprices intervene before matters reach boiling point. In a way, this reflects Navaria’s childhood, growing up in a Dalit family in Delhi. The metropolis does insulate some of the violence associated with caste-based discrimination, but manages to rub in the underlying bias all the same. In Yes Sir, a Brahmin underling bitter about serving a Dalit man fantasises about insulting his boss openly, but remains content with muttered curses. “Scum! He doesn’t even have regard for age. He must be at least a dozen years my junior. He was made an officer under the quota — the pawn becomes a knight, and there’s pride in his stride! If it weren’t for the quota, he’d be pushing a broom somewhere.” When I asked Navaria about this constant hide-and-seek between the naram (soft) and garam (violent) sections in his stories, he said, “Meraa uddeshya logon mein aakrosh bharnaa nahi hai. Main samaaj ke dono hisson ko unki hit ki baat bataa raha hoon. Agar dono mein harmony hotee hai, toh desh chain se reh sakta hai.” (It’s not my intention to fill people with rage. I’m only delivering a mutually beneficial message to both these parts of our society (the Brahmins and the Dalits). If there’s harmony between the two, the nation can breathe a sigh of relief.)

The reservation debate has dominated much of the Dalit narrative for the past two decades. In Navaria’s books, characters not only have incendiary, divisive views; they understand and are prepared for the consequences which their stand brings about. In Udhar Ke Log, a character complains about the jaatavs (a Dalit sub-caste, part of the chamaar community whose members were, historically, cobblers or shoe-makers) reaping the lion’s share of the quota harvest. Pat comes an impassioned reply, the passage becoming a vital little window into the quagmire of Dalit politics in India. “Hum padhe-likhe, humne Baba Saheb Ambedkar ke ‘shikshit bano, sangathit raho, sangharsh karo’ naare ko apnaa jeevan darshan banaaya, toh hum aage aaye. Valmikiyon ko yaa kisi aur jaati ko humne toh manaa nahi kiyaa thaa ki mat padho-likho, mat Ambedkari vichaaron ko maano. Ab koi jhaadoo lagaane ke aarakshan ko hi akele uthaana chaahe, to uthaaye, khoob uthaaye.”  (We studied; we internalised Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s ‘Educate Organise Struggle” motto; and thus we made progress. We did not stop the Valmikis or anyone else from educating themselves, from following Ambedkar’s advice. But if someone wishes his sweeper’s spot to be ‘reserved’ for him alone, he is most welcome to do so.)

The infighting between various sections of the Dalits, the compromising of grassroots issues and the shallowness of over-zealous soapbox-ing find frequent caricatures in Navaria’s stories. He is smart enough to realise that the likelihood of discriminatory behaviour need not depend on a person’s history. There’s a mild nihilism in this thought; that caste or any other construct of the oppressor is destined to repeat itself forever, not only through successive generations of the oppressors, but also through the sometimes militant psyches of those who seek to uproot the status quo. “Samaaj mein har vyakti apne se oopar ke varna ke logon kaa anukaran kartaa hai. Woh jaanta hai ki woh jaati nahi ek ‘brand’ ko dekhta hai. Aaj brand ambassador honaa badi baat hai. Impact brand kaa hi hotaa hai.” (In society, every person emulates those who’re a rung above on the ladder. People know that they’re not really seeing a (high) caste, they’re seeing a brand. Today, it’s brands which make an impact. It’s a big deal to be a brand ambassador.)

It’s very tempting to view Navaria’s books as a totemic proxy for modern Dalit literature. There’s certainly a high degree of political engagement in his writing. However, by the time you warm up to the erudition and the craft of Udhar Ke Log, you realise that you’d be massively underselling Navaria’s work by describing it in such constricted terms. Navaria realised the shady business of literary nomenclature when Naya Kaydaa (New Custom), one of his stories was considered for an anthology of Dalit literature. “Ve maante hi nahi ki main Dalit writing kartaa hoon.” (They simply refuse to believe that I’m a part of ‘Dalit writing’.) At the end of the story, a Dalit character agrees to pay up for the glass which he has ‘polluted’ by drinking from it. He then angrily smashes it to smithereens before a bemused crowd. “Unhone mujhse kahaa ki is kahaani mein toh use ant mein lad marnaa thaa.” (They said that the Dalit character should have fought with his oppressors at the end of the story.)

By and large, though, Navaria cuts a relaxed figure, someone who has made his peace with being a bit of a literary gadfly. During our conversation, he mentioned his love for teaching on more than one occasion. To him, his books serve the same purpose as his job; as long as the books don’t sound preachy, that is. “Europe kee sachchai hai varg, aur Bharat ki sachchai hai jaati. Main ek aisa samaaj chaahta hoon jisme jaati aur dharma ke aadhaar par kisi kaa moolyankan naa ho.” (Europe’s great truth is class, and India’s is caste. I merely want a society where nobody is evaluated on the basis of religion or caste.)


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